Are recent Chinese films a sign of loosening censorship in China?

Updated 2018-01-05 11:31:06

A soldier explodes into pieces, a man in modern Shanghai falls in love with a fox spirit, an animated fantasy tale holds up a mirror to today's social issues… content such as this had long been taboo for Chinese films aiming for national release in the Chinese mainland, yet these describe some of the imagery and scenarios that took place in last year's Youth, Hanson and the Beast, and Da Hu Fa.

Fewer barriers

For a long time in China there were numerous unspoken rules about what could or could not appear in films. Stories with magical elements were strictly limited to taking place during ancient times, modern horror films depicting seemingly supernatural elements had to explain by the end of the film that the ghosts were just hallucinations or tricks setup by crazed killers, exceedingly bloody or violent scenes were nowhere to be seen.

The entire process of getting a film made was also once strictly supervised at every step of the way from the beginning of production all the way to right before a film hit theaters.

But 2017 provided some hints that things are relaxing in the Chinese mainland.

In March of 2017, the government introduced the China Film Industry Promotion Law. One aspect of this new law has been to make it easier for films to start production. According to new regulations films that do not touch upon national security, diplomacy, ethnic minorities, religion, the military and other sensitive subjects, no longer need to hand in their scripts for approval prior to shooting.

While these regulations indicate a relaxation of the rules when it comes to getting films off the ground, recent releases hint that final approval of what makes it to screens is also loosening.

Take the above-mentioned Hanson and the Beast, for example. The film takes place in modern times, yet tells the story of a zoo keeper who encounters and falls in love with a fox spirit.

Many Chinese filmgoers were surprised to see spirits and demons straight out of Chinese legends depicted as living - albeit in hiding - among humans in modern China as this seemed to break the rule against showing demons, ghosts and other supernatural elements in today's world.

The film does spend a few minutes of sci-fi hand-waving to explain why these fantasy creatures from Chinese legends actually exist (alien DNA), but it is certainly a small step that opens the door for future works to further merge traditional Chinese fantasy elements and a modern setting.

Some future releases are also being seen as something of a surprise.

The upcoming animated dark comedy Have a Nice Day, set for release on January 12, contains explicit violent imagery in its depiction of criminal gang activity.

While the film was the only Chinese film selected to compete for the Golden Bear Award at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival last year, many moviegoers in China worried that the film wouldn't see a release in its original form since it depicted the dark side of Chinese society.

In an interview with the Global Times, the film's director, Liu Jian, said that he was only required to change a few lines of dialogue to ensure the film's release. He emphasized, however, that the changes did not hurt the essence of the film as the new lines of dialogue have the same meaning as before, but are just said in a different way.

"My impression as a director is that [censorship] is not a fixed iron plate. As long as you make a really good film, everyone will help [it get to theaters]," Liu said.

"Nowadays, the film environment [in China] is becoming more diverse. There are no set rules that say you have to do this or can never do that."

Pushing boundaries

In late December, Yi Qiao - president of the Chinese studio Color Room, which produced both Have a Nice Day and Da Hu Fa - remarked to audiences at a promotional event for Have a Nice Day that "Censorship is not as bad as everyone thinks. Limits are meant to be challenged."

His opinion was backed up by Da Hu Fa director Bu Si Fan, who revealed that he was a little shocked that his film - which many have seen as satirizing today's society - passed review, "When I was making Da Hu Fa, I never imagined it would be shown in theaters. If I had known, I wouldn't have touched on some of those 'sensitive subjects' in the film."

At a film event on December 29 for his film Coffee, Italian director Cristiano Bortone shared his viewpoint as a filmmaker who has been working in China for years.

Feeling that the industry had "gotten a little bit tighter because of Party meetings and a lot of sensitive issues," Bortone noted that these are part of a larger cycle.

"It is always like that in China, there are moments when restrictions tighten up, but they eventually taper off."

Looking at the larger picture he is confident things will continue to improve, "there is no way stop society from evolving."

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